Detroit Free Press
Published 6:00 AM EDT Mar 18, 2019
At 3,987 miles, the border between the lower United States and Canada is the third-longest international boundary in the world, more than twice as long as the border between the United States and Mexico, and considerably harder to secure.
Author/adventurer Porter Fox chronicles the three years he spent exploring the northern border, including the 721 miles that divide Michigan and Ontario, in his 2018 book, “Northland.”
This month, not long after President Trump declared a national emergency on the shorter, less porous southern border. Free Press Editorial Page Editor Brian Dickerson asked Fox what he learned on his 4,000-mile odyssey:
Q. Your book conveys the impression that before the 9/11 attacks, the U.S.- Canadian boundary was scarcely a border at all, with most official checkpoints left unguarded at night and residents of both countries coming and going as casually as they would cross county lines or state boundaries.
This is the way it always was.
In the beginning, the border was not even a line. Settlers from many nations, including Native Americans, lived on both sides of the line that we know today. It was a porous border, in part, because many businesses like the timber and fishing trades also straddled that line.
After the American revolution, the British did not go back to England. Most of them went to British Canada and retained ownership of their businesses to the south. The line was so open, and busy, in America’s early days, that it was almost impossible to collect tariffs on goods coming into the U.S.
Even today, there are many parts of the border where you can simply walk across. I know, because I did it many times while researching Northland.
Q. You discovered a lot of confusion some places along the border about where our country ends and where Canada begins. Are there any ongoing, unresolved boundary disputes between the two countries?
There are quite a few.
The sovereignty of nearby Machias Seal Island off the coast of Maine has been disputed for more than 200 years.The situation wasn’t a problem until the price of lobster spiked in 2015 and Nova Scotia fishermen started setting traps there. Death threats, cut lines, and close calls between American and Canadian fishermen followed. The dispute was never resolved, nor were several others in “gray zones” along the line.
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Fishermen at Dixon Entrance, between Alaska and British Columbia, have been battling for fishing rights for years. U.S. and Canadian companies began vying for oil- drilling rights in the Beaufort Sea, near the Arctic Ocean, One of the most public feuds along the northern border is playing out in the Northwest Passage — the fabled water route to China that only recently thawed enough to allow boats through — where American ships are claiming navigational rights on water Canadians say is theirs.
Q. Michiganders who travel to Canada regularly know the journey has become more complicated and time-consuming since 9/11. How have those new impediments changed the experience and attitudes of people in the border communities you visited?
It has changed things a lot, mostly north of the border.
For many years, Canadians have been driving into America for jobs or to pick up things like toilet paper that are a couple of bucks cheaper in the States. You notice lots of businesses like Mailboxes Etc. on the American side of the line. Most of the P.O. boxes there are owned by Canadians, so they can order things from Amazon without paying a heavy tax.
Doctors, clergy, schoolteachers and bartenders often live in Canada and drive south over the border, and vice versa, to do their work.
Increased (and disorganized) security makes it impossible to predict whether there will be a five-minute or five-hour wait at the border. This has turned a lot of Canadians I spoke with against the United States, understandably feeling that the U.S. simply doesn’t care what they think or how this affects them.
Customs and Border Protection acts with impunity and little oversight, and is free to racially profile or indefinitely detain travelers and basically do whatever they want.
In terms of business, it has been devastating to border regions. One study estimates that businesses along the American side of the border lose $30 billion a year due to unpredictable border crossing bureaucracy.
The auto industry is a good example. Vehicles produced in North America crisscross the border up to seven times before they are completed, creating thousands of customs transactions for each truckload. Every delay can cost up to $800 per vehicle. A study by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce found that a four-hour delay at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor can cost the Ontario economy up to $7 million in lost production.
Q. You write of canoe trips in which you crossed the border dozens of times in a single day without encountering border patrol agents from either country. But officials on both sides assured you that your movements were being monitored 24/7 by drones, satellites, sensors, etc.
No, I think that border patrol and communities exaggerate the effectiveness of surveillance — to make themselves sleep better at night and deter would-be smugglers. .
The Department of Homeland Security has essentially transposed its Mexico border policy to the U.S-Canada border, increasing the number of agents in the north by 500 percent and installing some of the same sensors, security cameras, military-grade radar and drones used on the U.S.-Mexico line.
The increased security has resulted in an uptick in arrests, but it has hardly locked the northern border down, because it focuses on border checkpoints, and not the vast backcountry between them.
The northern border is long, rugged, underfunded and suffers from “constricted domain awareness.” A 2010 Congressional Research Service report put a number to that “awareness,” stating that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) maintained “operational control” over just 69 miles of the northern border. Even with a new DHS “Northern Border strategy” rolling out, it doesn’t look like much is going to change.
Q. Fewof the residents you encountered seem particularly worried about border security; even the militia leader you interviewed in Idaho didn’t talk much about illegal immigration.
Journalists who cover the Mexican border convey the same sense that the closer people live to the boundary, the less threatened they feel by those on the other side. You seem to have had the same experience: Even the militia leader you interviewed in Idaho didn’t seem worried about illegal immigration. Do you think there’s a commonality of experience that transcends the obvious differences between the two border communities?
Absolutely. Probably the greatest commonality is the understanding that politicians and the media have no idea what it is actually like to live on the border.
Border patrol on both sides of the line operates with so little oversight that it can basically do whatever it wants within 100 miles of the line. They have complete and total authority in that region, and they can make life more difficult for citizens living there than for illegals trying to cross.
Travel Writer Stephanie Elizondo compares the Rio Grande Valley to the U.S-Canada border where it passes through the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in upstate New York. Her book is disturbing examination of how much of the U.S. came to be, and how the original residents of this borderland continue to be oppressed.
Q. The U.S.-Canada border divides 12 Indian reservations, and three times as many indigenous tribal populations. Some still refuse to officially recognize the border, although most grudgingly obey the immigration laws ordained by Ottawa and Washington. Have any of those tribes – or any other border communities you encountered, for that matter – been able to maintain their identity as a single community?
They are trying, in spite of constant harassment by U.S. and Canadian officials.
At the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation, families are forced to cross three bridges over the St. Lawrence River, over and back — waiting in hour-plus border-check lines at two stations in Ontario and New York — before dropping their children off at school on Cornwall Island. When parents are late to school and skip the second bridge, their cars are impounded and they are arrested for aiding and abetting illegal aliens.
Q. The only terrorists known to have entered the U.S. by land have come from Canada, not Mexico. So what in your mind accounts for the widespread conviction that our most serious vulnerability lies in the South?
It’s all politics and it always has been.
The president wants to build a $30 billion wall on the southern order, but what is it going to stop? It is common knowledge that 90 percent of human and drug trafficking takes place at ports of entry, not the backcountry where the proposed wall would be built.
There are some racist implications here as well, with the growing sentiment that America needs to stop brown-skinned people from the south penetrating into the States, when the actual threat to the United States, as documented by the federal agencies, is in the north. FBI reports uncovered by The Daily Beast last year show that there have been significantly more encounters with terror suspects on the northern border recently than in the south. Not to mention he opioid crisis, which is being fueled by smugglers in the north.
Q. Demographers who study Mexican immigration patterns have marshalled persuasive evidence that making the southern border more secure has dramatically increased the population of undocumented immigrants by making it more dangerous for migrant workers to bounce back and forth between their work in the U.S. and their families in Mexico. The theory is that since slipping in and out of the U.S. seasonally became more dificult, more workers are bringing their families here and staying, or starting families here and staying. Did you encounter evidence of anything similar happening along the northern border since 2001?
No, the number of migrant workers crossing the northern border is very small. Although, truth be told, crossings in remote regions are detected regularly, but individuals, some armed, repeatedly get away before agents can get there — leading border officials to suggest that they might not know how many people actually cross the northern border illegally.
Q. Detroit is one of the few large American cities on the northern border. How is the relationship between residents of less densely populated border communities different than the one between Detroiters and their neighbors in Windsor?
It’s pretty different. At busy crossing like the Windsor Bridge and Blaine, Washington, there is a heavy presence of Customs and Border Protection services. There is a tremendous amount of surveillance, and I noticed, a feeling that things are being taken care of.
In rural parts of the border, this simply does not exist. There are roads that cross the border with a slim white monument indicating the U.S.-Canada boundary, but nothing actually blocking the road. There are logging roads in the woods of Maine, Vermont, New York, Minnesota, and practically every other state along northern border that cross the line without any obstruction. Which is to say, you don’t need to walk across the border, you can drive.
The feeling in these communities is understandably a bit paranoid. And as I discovered in northern Maine, any person with a dark complexion walking into a rural northern border town is likely going to get stopped or questioned. Customs and Border Protection actually counts on this, and uses this grapevine security to shore up the northern border in lieu of proper staffing and funding that it has been asking for for years.
The problem is, townsfolk are not trained professionals, and plenty can slip past.
Q. The United States and Canada have been on the same side in most important political disputes over the last century. Did the people you encountered in your journey express any anxiety that conflicts over natural resources, environmental regulation or immigration policy could fundamentally alter the relationship?
I think that there is more tension between the U.S. and Canada then politicians let on. Canada remains America’s No. 1 oil importer and No. 3 trading partner. More than 40 oil pipelines cross the northern border. About 95 percent of America’s surface freshwater sits in the Great Lakes basin, and almost half of that is Canada’s.
Q. How are the border communities you describe in your book likely to change over the next 20 years? Will the boundary between our countries become harder or softer, and what variables will determine that?
I don’t see much changing in the next 20 years. After that, I believe that climate change is going to change everything in North America.
As the previous Canadian ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer, said, things like water wars in the future will make arguments over the XL pipeline “look silly.” The vast natural resources that Canada controls are going to be in high demand. As coastal flooding, extreme temperatures and the desertification of the America West take hold, mass northern migration is going to put a lot of pressure on all borders around the world. (We’re already seeing this in Europe.)
One would think that Canada would hold the cards in future border and trade negotiations. But knowing America’s appetite for money, land and power, it seems more rational that the U.S. will eventually revisit plans to simply add its northern neighbor into the Union.
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